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How to ask your company to pay for your MBA - and get them to say yes

How to ask your company to pay for your MBA - and get them to say yes

boss and employee talking

Courtesy of Thomas Barwick

"The challenge is persuasion: How do you influence an organization that maybe doesn't have a program or structure to help?" said Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching.

  • A 2019 survey by Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that nearly half of the students at the top business schools around the globe are borrowing at least $100,000 to finance their degrees.
  • If that number scares you, it's worth considering whether your company can sponsor your MBA.
  • We spoke with industry experts and real people who've made the ask for advice on how to broach this subject with your boss or HR.
  • These experts suggest paying your dues and standing out as a stellar employee, and using that as leverage to get funding. Then, when it's time to have the conversation, make sure you emphasize the value business school can bring to the company and their bottom line.
  • However, they warn that you should also understand the terms that come with accepting funding from your organization.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

From prepping for tests to filling out lengthy applications to actually spending time in business school, going after an MBA is a major commitment. But of all the daunting aspects, the cost might be the most discouraging. A 2019 survey by Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that nearly half of the students at the top business schools around the globe are borrowing at least $100,000 to finance their degrees.

The return on investment for business school may seem high compared to other graduate schools, with an estimated median starting salary for new grads at $105,000 as of 2018, according to research conducted by The Graduate Management Admission Council - but still, that's a whole lot of zeroes. So when possible, it's ideal to get someone else to help pay for the degree so you can avoid taking on all of that debt. In some cases, that might even be your company.

Read on for tips on how to best set yourself up for potential sponsorship, tuition reimbursement, and support. (Hint: It starts with helping your superiors see your continued education as something that's worth it for them.)

Find out what your options are for getting funding

You may already be aware of what your company offers as support for ongoing training and executive advancement - that might be what drew you to the organization in the first place.

Meredith Shields, cofounder of Vantage Point MBA, a top MBA admissions consultancy, told Business Insider that in her experience, the big consulting firms like Deloitte, McKinsey, BCG, and Bain have the best programs for reimbursement. Smaller financial firms might also offer tuition support, as may small private equity companies and family businesses.

For full-time MBA programs, companies typically reimburse employees for tuition, staggering the payments over time - for example, they may reimburse half of your tuition after your first full year working after graduation and then the second half after your second full year there. They may also require you to stay on at the company for a stipulated period of time in order to receive the reimbursement funds, so it's important to understand your contractual obligations going in (more on that below). When in doubt, contact your HR for information.

Meredith Shields

Courtesy of Meredith Shields

Meredith Shields.

If the pre-MBA track isn't clear at your business, that doesn't mean there isn't potential. Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching, an executive coaching and leadership training company based in Manhattan, says that it's worth broaching the subject anyways.

"The challenge is persuasion: How do you influence an organization that maybe doesn't have a program or structure to help? And the way to do that is to make the business case," said Perry. "Ideally, come prepared with numbers, or at least specific examples, of how you could contribute differently if you did the program."

When Anna Baskin, Kellogg class of 2011, was contemplating business school, she already knew that her company, Deloitte, had a sponsorship program for MBA students. But one thing she thinks is important for people to understand is that even if your company does provide funding, it doesn't cover everything. And because the money isn't typically up front, students pay out of pocket or take out loans to cover the cost of attendance in the meantime. "Books, room and board, living expenses: It adds up," she explained.

Consider other routes besides a full-time MBA, such as online or part-time programs

While it was once more common for companies to allow people to leave to pursue their MBA full time, flexible, part-time executive training programs have become more popular in recent years, according to Shields. The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, for example, offers both a part-time and evening program for people both in state and out of state. You could also consider Harvard Business School online or the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon, both highly ranked and highly regarded online programs according to reputable sites and student surveys.

Read more: How to choose the best online MBA for you, according to students who've used these affordable, flexible degrees to launch their careers

Whether you decide to go the part-time or full-time route should be a decision based on the particulars of your life and career. Shields said that, generally, part-time programs offer more flexibility while also providing similar benefits and connections to a full-time degree. "But it depends on a person's career goals as to whether a full-time or part-time program is right for them," she added.

Even if you're going to a part-time or online program, however, it's important to manage expectations between yourself and your employer. "It takes a good portion of time, and it's a massive investment," Shields said.

Before bringing it up, play the long game to prove you're worth investing in

Maybe you took a job at a big consulting firm with the hope that one day you would be on the MBA track and receive company support. But even if that's the case, Perry advised that you bide your time. If you're someone who hasn't been at the company for very long, or hasn't demonstrated why they deserve employer support, you have more work to do before your organization starts handing you money.

Maren Perry MA PCC

Courtesy of Maren Perry

Maren Perry.

MBA programs, Shields added, are intended to train "people who are going to develop strategies, be able to manage large teams and change, [and] who are going to come up with game-changing ideas." Your pitch to your company (and ultimately the school) is about demonstrating that you have the makings to be one of those top leaders. That starts with an impressive track record that will ultimately bring supporters into your corner, and means going the extra mile with projects, actively seeking out challenges, and constantly stepping up. In other words, consistently being a star and recruiting fans.

"Overall, you want to be a good employee - be someone your boss wants to help," said Perry.

Prep your pitch with information on how an MBA will benefit the company - not just you

How you pitch yourself as a candidate to your employer is as individual as the person and arrangement. But, in general, explained Shields, "It has more to do with being able to pitch your future as it does with anything else."

Start the discussion with your boss with the argument that additional training - which will obviously benefit you - will also benefit the company. "Companies don't do a great job of teaching management skills. When you think about who gets promoted, it's typically people who excel at their functions, not people who are going to be managing the team that does that function. This is a really effective strategy for pitching yourself because an MBA is all about how to manage people," said Shields.

Another case to make is that MBA training will help give you a more holistic view of the business, which can be hard to get onsite. As a junior marketing executive, for example, you may never get firsthand experience in supply chain or warehouse operations, but you'll be exposed to the functions in a program meant to help you understand the big picture.

"There's also the network: learning from your peers at other companies, who could wind up becoming clients, future customers, vendors, buyers," Shields added.

During that conversation, lead with the benefits to the company and your plan for how you will manage school and your role if you intend to do both at the same time. Point to your strengths as an employee and your professional goals, and also outline the specifics of how an MBA program will help you improve on these key strengths and skills.

And when the conversation is over, advised Perry, and you're waiting on a decision, make sure to follow up with your manager or HR. "Get it on the calendar to review again and get an answer, so it's not just hanging out there," she said.

Understand the terms of agreeing to receive funding

Shields cautions that even the big consulting companies don't just write a check up front: "It's reimbursement, typically, and you promise to work there for two to four years to get the benefit," she said.

Baskin's experience reflects that process. The specific agreement with Deloitte was, she explain, that "you are free to do whatever you want, but there is no incentive unless you come back and meet certain performance requirements." The way it works is, after the first year, a sponsored employee is paid a bonus equal to the amount of one year's tuition; the same thing happens at the end of the second year.

While you're in school, Shields explained, the company is "making an investment not just in tuition but also in flexibility." A part-time MBA candidate might be working a flex schedule for three or four years. "A company has to believe it's fully worth the investment. They want to know what they are getting in terms of ROI," she said, and sometimes that manifests in a loyalty contract.

"If they are going to pay, then they will want you to come back," Shields said. Renegotiating the terms of the agreement is unlikely. Still, she added: "It doesn't hurt to ask."


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